'The Homesman' (R)

The Homesman, director Tommy Lee Jones’ drama about the hardships of pioneer life in 1850s Nebraska, goes from deathly dull to shocking to intriguing to “Look, there’s Meryl Streep in a bonnet!”

Jones, who also stars in and co-wrote this adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s novel, keeps changing the film’s tone, veering from the absurd to horrifying to comic. His approach is daring, a way to enliven what is essentially a road movie about a wagon crossing barren plains where little ever happens. Jones lets you relax until you start to grow sleepy, then throws in surprises that make you rethink everything about where the story was headed.

But the jarring detours take you out of the film every time you become invested in it. Hilary Swank stars as Mary, a single woman approaching old maid status who is desperate to marry and have children but cannot find a willing suitor. With nothing to keep her at home, she accepts a request from the local preacher (John Lithgow) to transport three mentally distraught and potentially dangerous women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter) to Iowa, where they will be taken in by a minister’s wife (Streep).

Soon after embarking on her journey, Mary comes across a man, George (played by Jones), who has been left to hang sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck. She rescues him on the condition that he accompany her on their trek.
He reluctantly agrees, although there is something not entirely trustworthy about George. There are hints – but only hints –  that he’s the sort of person who will exploit any situation and pretend to go along, but is capable of betraying anyone if the right opportunity comes his way.

Like any road movie, there are encounters galore along the way, including a meeting with a tribe of potentially hostile Native Americans and a weaselly luxury hotel owner (played with just the right amount of hypocritical unctuousness by James Spader). There is an unexpected tragedy or two. Swank is good as the somewhat naive but brave lonelyheart who takes on the perilous assignment, but Jones gives the movie its crackpot energy. Every time you think you’ve got his intentions figured out, he surprises you. He’s a grade-A rascal, a thief and a liar (even his name sounds like he made it up), but as the trip unfolds, you start to detect something resembling affection and duty in him.

Unlike Meek’s Cutoff, which delved into the details and physical hardships of pioneer life, The Homesman is more concerned with the psychological state of its characters and their conflicting desires. Their human cargo is insane and beyond reach, but Jones and Swank form an intriguing odd-couple bond born out of necessity, not love or friendship.

 Although the film sounds like a traditional story of redemption, Jones has a completely different and less-humane destination in mind. Parts of The Homesman are a slog to sit through, but the movie ends on a note of absurd comedy that also breaks your heart, suggesting that some people, no matter the circumstances, are incapable of change.

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, William Fichter, Jesse Plemons, Tim Blake Nelson, John Lithgow, James Spader, Meryl Streep.

Director: Tommy Lee Jones.

Screenwriters: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout.

A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 120 minutes. Violence, brief nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, Paragon Grove, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Delray.